Technological advancement can disrupt, but it can also enhance. The difference between the two often rests in how we respond.
The internet has done both.
One only has to look at how quickly online usage - and what it can be used for - has grown and changed over the years. In the early 1990s only 0.5% of the UK population used the internet, that figure stands at over 89% today and continues to grow.
While the figure alone seems pretty high, it doesn't give a clear picture of how embedded internet usage is in modern British life. For households consisting of people over 65, internet usage is just over 40%, but in single person households it is around 80% and in households with children the figure is as high as 96%.
And it is growing.
It seems almost everyone you see these days has a tablet or smartphone, and this is contributing to easier, more convenient and mobile access to the internet. An increasing number of places offer Wi-Fi, including cafes, buses, libraries, train stations and entire towns or cities! Currently over 68% of the population connect to the internet using mobile technology, but this fluctuates between ages – with less than a quarter of those over 65 doing so, but almost 100% of those 18-24 connect in this way.
While the internet is used for a wide range of activities, including research, entertainment, and communication, it is increasingly being used for transactional purposes such as online banking, paying bills, and buying goods and services.
In 2008, 53% of people in the UK bought goods and services online. In 2014 this figure had increased to 74% and is continuing to grow. While it may come as no surprise that over 90% of people aged between 25-34 have bought online, it's interesting to note that over 40% of internet users over 65 have purchased online as well.
High numbers of people have also used the internet to research goods before they purchase in store, with this figure being around 44% of UK shoppers in 2012.
Overall Britons are spending massive amounts of money online each year, with £91 billion spent online in 2013 and £107 billion in 2014 – more than what the UK Parliament spends on education! This is set to increase in the coming years with one in every five pounds of retail spend done online.
This comes at a cost, however.
The viability of our town centres is being affected as the primary beneficiaries of increased online spend tend to be larger companies like Amazon, Tesco, Argos, John Lewis, among others, rather than the majority of physical retailers. Smaller businesses are less likely to be able to fully invest in capturing the benefit of being online and lose out, even though they are the ones who contribute enormously to the attractiveness and distinctive vibrancy of many town centres.
Combine increased online spend with the trend of large businesses consolidating their footprint in large towns, cities, or retail parks, as well increased parking charges, public transport challenges, changing work patterns, an increasingly elderly population that want to travel less for their weekly shop, and you have a recipe for the continued decline of many retail centres.
Town centre businesses are aware of the challenges, and responding to this new reality by developing their own online presence. Many now have websites or use social media, while an increasing number are selling online to complement their in-store sales. Unfortunately, in many parts of the country where disadvantage and deprivation already exist, the pace of this change is slow and the shift to greater online spend can be viewed more as a threat than an opportunity. This slow pace can be down to a number of factors – from reluctance or resistance to explore online opportunities, to a lack of necessary skills or finance to create and sustain an online presence.
These places are exposed to spending shifts, and will continue to lose out as more people purchase online. As local businesses and ownership weakens, increasingly economic decisions will be made by companies with no real connection to the area. To counter this, we need to build up resilience in these towns and - to borrow a phrase prominent during the EU referendum - take back control.
Digitally Resilient Towns
Similar in the way that communities in the UK and across the world sought to become Fair Trade Towns, I believe a campaign to encourage the emergence of 'Digitally Resilient Towns' could help to safeguard the vitality and viability of many towns struggling with the trend of increased online spend.
Fair Trade Towns have to meet a specific criteria, one which is both challenging but realistic and shows the commitment of the town in question. To be a Digitally Resilient Town, I would propose that the following criteria apply;
- The Local Council should pass a resolution, publicly committing themselves to pursuing this agenda.
- An appropriate body that brings business, council, and community representatives together for the purpose of enacting this campaign and monitoring its success should either be established, or if such a body already exists, agree to take the lead.
- At least three quarters (75%) of businesses in the town centre should have a basic online presence. This would ideally be on social media (such as Facebook or Twitter) but it could also include a website.
- At least half (50%) of businesses in the town centre should be part of a shared online platform, so that each benefit from being clustered together (sharing virtual footfall) and building a sense of common identity, branding and purpose.
- At least one quarter (25%) of businesses in the town centre should have e-commerce tools on their online presence, although this could be either click and collection functions or sale for delivery.
This criteria is challenging, but anything less would likely not produce the results necessary to truly safeguard areas and ensure they can take full advantage of online opportunities.
This isn't a silver bullet to save town centres, but it can help.